Urban Menace: The ‘pigeon problem’ in Indian cities is human-caused; here is how

Ready supply of food, adaptable nesting habits and prolific breeding have led to a huge jump in pigeon numbers across India in recent years

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Saturday 01 July 2023

Dibakar Paul begins his day with a ritual. For the past several years, every morning, Paul, a fruit and vegetable seller in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park locality, marches to the parking space in the market and scatters a fistful of bajra (pearl millet) on the ground. Soon, hundreds of pigeons and crows fill the ground.

“He is fond of birds and animals,” Paul’s brother, Balram, tells Down To Earth (DTE). Across the road, Anirban Bhadra lives with his family. He is often bothered by pigeons littering his house with their droppings. “I have two small children. I always fear as to what could happen if one of them accidentally ingests the droppings,” he tells DTE. “They are a big nuisance.”

But for Jigna Gopani, a resident of Mumbai’s Kandivali West locality, pigeons are the harbinger of death. “It was July 2019, when I began to feel breathless. There was a persistent cough and high fever for two days,” Gopani tells DTE.

A battery of blood tests, X-rays and CT scans later, doctors found that Gopani was suffering from a serious lung disease, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, which causes scarring of the lungs making it difficult to breathe.

Scientific literature say the disease is an immunological reaction of lungs to repeated inhalation of an antigen or allergen, and pigeon dropping is a common antigen. Since there is no cure for it, Gopani will have to depend on steroids or immunosuppressants throughout her life.

Gopani is not sure how she got the disease. She has never fed pigeons. “But there are pigeons all around our building like others and their droppings are everywhere,” she says.

Pulmonologists, however, are certain that pigeons are responsible for the rising cases of hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Namrata Jasani, a chest physician in Mumbai, says there has been a fivefold increase in the disease burden in the city in last 10-15 years, and it is linked to exploding number of pigeons.

“Pigeons are known to spread zoonoses through ectoparasites in their droppings or feathers,” says Faiyaz Khudsar, scientist at the Biodiversity Parks Programme of Centre for Environment Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE), University of Delhi.

Apart from hypersensitivity pneumonitis, pigeon droppings cause cryptococcal meningitis (a fungal infection that spreads from lungs to the brain with symptoms that include confusion or changes in behaviour) and psittacosis (a bacterial infection with pneumonia-like condition).

“One can easily contract any of these diseases because pigeon faecal matter is present almost every where—on the roads, in the soil and, of course, in the nests that pigeons make in our houses. Since faecal matter can remain suspended in the air, it easily travels into our lungs. In urban centres, the effect is compounded by poor air quality,” Khudsar says, adding that a pigeon can generate 12-15 kg of dropping in a year.

A 2019 study, published in the journal Lung India, analysed the data of patients with interstitial lung disease (ILD) in 19 cities from 2012 to 2015, and found that although the majority of patients with hypersensitivity pneumonitis were exposed to air-coolers, the odds of developing the disease as compared to other types of ILD was the highest in those exposed to birds.

Andrew D Blechman, author of the book, Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird, however says, “Pigeons are not a menace. If there is an overpopulation of pigeons, it is because of humans. They overpopulate when we overfeed them purposely, or because we drop so much food on the ground.”

Ashwin Viswanathan of Bird Count India, a consortium of organisations, agrees. He says pigeons have adapted to urban India largely because of three reasons. First, they have generalist diets and food available around urban settings is good for them. Second, they are ledge nesters.

Pigeons seen in urban surroundings are descendents of the rock dove or rock pigeon or Columbus livia, and all they need is a bit of an overhang to build nest and buildings provide a nice alternative to what was once their natural habitat.

Third, unlike many other birds, pigeons nest throughout the year. Viswanathan says pigeon numbers have increased by 100 per cent in last 25 years in India. This is when the population of most birds have declined. To add to the advantages, pigeons hardly have any natural predators in urban areas.

If pigeons are indeed a public health risk, what can be done to reduce that threat? The experts DTE spoke to had several suggestions. But one underlying thread connected them all: People will have to stop feeding pigeons if they want to save themselves from diseases.

A 2014 study by researchers from the University of Jammu noted that most of pigeons’ nutrition in the Jammu city came from food given voluntarily by humans.

“Pigeons reflected a clear preference for foraging on food provided by the public rather than on waste food as volunteer food provided higher intake rates to pigeons accompanied by minimum expenditure of energy,” the study noted.

Khudsar says, “Pigeons need substantial food sources to support themselves and their broods. Some studies suggest that if you do not give food for three-four days, they lose 5 per cent of their body weight and their reproductive capacity also goes down.”

Besides, when food supply is decreased, competition increases and reduces the probability of juveniles making it into adulthood and adding to the (breeding) population. The reproductive success also declines since there is no food to support them, Khudsar adds.

In March 2023, following an order by the High Court of Bombay, Pune Municipal Corporation has started imposing a fine of R500 on citizens feeding pigeons in public places and has also called the “unnatural growth” of pigeons a “health hazard”. But fines and bans have not deterred many.

Blechman says countries in the West usually deter pigeons from roosting or nesting in apartments, houses and high-rises by setting up nets or spikes. “These only work for a little while before the netting tears or the spikes fill with leaves and other debris. And pigeons find another ledge to nest on,” he says. “Creating nesting areas for pigeons on public rooftops that are tended by a caretaker is the only thing that works.

Pigeons are invited to roost, feed and care for and their eggs are replaced regularly with wooden replicas or simply removed. This stops overpopulation,” he adds.

This technique, known as “dovecot” or “loft” is in use in several countries in mainland Europe. Dasgupta says culling is also practised in many countries, but most of the evidence points to numbers reaching back to pre-cull levels within a few weeks.

“Given human densities in urban areas, killing such large numbers of pigeons will have a huge impact; it would lead to diseases,” says Viswanathan. He suggests educating people to stop feeding pigeons, so that they again become wild birds and have to fight for their existence and food.

“They will then not breed at such a high rate,” he says. According to Khudsar, limiting roosting and nesting sites will also help bring down their numbers. But who is mandated to do this?

Suneesh Buxy, Chief Wildlife Warden of Delhi, says the responsibility of managing pigeons is that of urban local bodies. On the other hand, Ashish Priyadarshi, director, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), says, pigeons do not fall under MCD’s purview.

“They should be managed by the forest department,” he says. Such confusion is probably the other reason behind this growing human-animal conflicts.

Flying menace

Recent orders on pigeons and birds by courts and civic authorities

Pune Municipal Corporation and Thane Municipal Corporation, in March 2023, declare a fine of `500 on feeding pigeons

Allahabad high court, in February 2023, dismisses a petition seeking a direction to the Nagar Nigam, Lucknow, to kill trouble-causing birds and animals

Bombay high court, hearing a civil suit in July 2016, rules that bird feeding from buildings should not be a nuisance to others. The same case reaches the Supreme Court, which, in March 2019, upholds the high court order

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This article is part of a cover story first published in the 16-30 June, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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